Books and Serendipity

By Marcia Schneider

Year after year, Shirley and Byron were the first buyers in line on the last day of the Friends of the Library’s annual Big Book Sale, when all the books are sold for a mere one dollar each. Their motivation? To purchase large quantities of quality hardcover fiction, which they used in their small business devoted to designing and furnishing hotel room interiors.

Although this well-read couple has since retired from their business, there is no dearth of bargain hunters who patiently wait in line to be the first arrivals at the opening of Fort Mason Center’s Festival Pavilion for this grand event.

This year’s sale was graced by splendid days, sporting warm and euphoric fall weather. With the backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge spanning the mouth of the Bay, its glory fully visible in the cloudless skies, sailboats dotted the indigo waters far off into the horizon.  Crissy Field was packed with walkers and runners, families and dogs, nappers, picnickers and kite fliers. Droves of people attended the sale.

How do readers select their books? In short, through multiple strategies.

The most organized approaches involve research.  Librarians read Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, Library Journal and other publications that devote ample real estate to reviews in order to select books, media and online resources.

Other resources might include reviews in newspapers and other periodicals, such as the New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, news periodicals such as Time or Newsweek, author interviews on Fresh Air, the Oprah Show, Good Morning America and other local and national network television programs. Avid readers might also rely on good old word of mouth, aka recommendations from friends and family.

When it comes to choosing books, there is also good old serendipity, which is a sensible approach when attending the Big Book Sale.

This year, the books were laid out in 95 different categories, including subject areas like business, children’s, gardening, humor, math, photography, religion, science, travel and reference.  The Big Book Sale, however, is not the place to search for a specific edition, title or author. With over 500,000 books to choose from, all donated by the public, booksellers and publishers, inventory is not a priority for this ephemeral treasure trove of books.

So, just who are these customers? On the final day of the sale, here are a few of the buyers departing the sale, balancing their bags of books with fresh bread, organic peaches, heirloom tomatoes, strawberries, and plates of delicious rotisserie chicken, bratwurst, and Yucatecan delights from the weekly Fort Mason Farmer’s Market.

By the water just north of Green’s restaurant, Christina, mother of a teenage daughter, was taking a rest beside six shopping bags full of books.  They were mostly reference books, including math workbooks still encased in the publisher’s original shrink-wrap. Her high school daughter had selected them all, and plans to use them throughout the school year to help her with her schoolwork.

Heading east, closer to the Festival Pavilion, two women sat by the Bay, chatting and clearly enjoying the sunshine. Four or five bags of books rested nearby.  Denise, a retired bookseller from the now closed Stacey’s Bookstore, explained that she is a “hunter/gatherer.”  As one who comes every year from Marin to the sale, she notes how “incredibly impressed” she is with the large selection of books, which she notes is restocked every night.

Denise, as a bookstore professional, especially appreciates finding review copies, recent releases and first editions. In addition to finding treasures for her personal home library, Denise buys books to donate to her favorite charities, including St. Vincent’s School for Boys.

Inside the pier, many buyers were pushing multiple shopping carts, overflowing with books. One gentleman approaching the check out area had four carts in tow, filled with textbooks on algebra, calculus, geology, anatomy, physiology and language learning books. The possible preconception that there is no use for old textbooks was blown totally out of the water. Thomas, an Oakland based book dealer, was collecting books to send to Papua, New Guinea, where such works are in high demand.

Alex, one of the volunteers, commented that dealers and multiple shopping carts are not uncommon at the Big Book Sale. Earlier in the day, he noted, several cartloads of older computer books appeared to be headed ultimately for Bangladesh.

This year’s sale is over, and the numbers added up to substantial support for San Francisco Public Library, thanks to the Friends. But, if the trends continue, next year’s sale will be even bigger and better. Don’t miss it!

Leave a Reply